Big and ungainly it may have looked, and it struggled to capture the imagination of the car buyers of the 1960s, but there’s no doubting the 1800 was one of the most advanced cars in its class. Keith Adams tells the BMC 1800 development story.
However, it has now matured to the point at which we can look beyond those early issues, and marvel in the genius of Issigonis.
BMC 1800/2200: The rot sets in
Once development of the BMC 1100 was well established and heading rapidly towards production, the question of producing a mid-range car to replace the Farina cars raised its head again. Unlike in the past when BMC would have re-bodied an existing car and launched it in a multitude of badge-engineered variations, the idea this time, with the ADO17, was to produce an entirely new car from the wheels up. In terms of configuration, the set-up of the new mid-sized car would follow the same transverse engine and transmission-in-sump arrangement as the BMC Mini and 1100.
Obviously, the larger car would be built around the 1.5-litre B-Series engine and, as such, would directly replace the 1.5-litre Farinas and boost the popularity of the mid-range BMCs as the Mini and 1100 would prove to do in the small car market. Before Leonard Lord had re-directed efforts towards producing the Mini, Issigonis had been working on his own mid-sized car, which by 1956 was denoted the XC9000.
That car that was driven by its rear wheels – ‘driven at the wrong end’, as Issigonis put it – but it did sire some ideas for the later ADO17, such as its long wheelbase in relation to the length of the car and quite elegant Citroenesque styling. Actually, had it not been for the intervention of the events in the Suez Canal, the mid-sized car probably would have appeared by about 1960, but as it was the Farina cars were introduced in 1958 and served as a stop-gap until Issigonis could resume work on his ADO17.
BMC 1800 development: XC9001 prototype
BMC 1800: Work on the new car begins
After a gap of two years, big car thinking resumed in earnest in the Autumn of 1958 and, after the successful development of the XC9003 (Mini), the obvious direction for Issigonis to take the new big car was down a front-wheel-drive path. The new front-wheel-drive design went under the project name XC9001 (above) and, in short order, a prototype was soon built to appear under the code number XC9001.
The first car looked remarkably like the original XC9000 project of 1956, but clothing front-wheel-drive mechanicals. Because the XC9001 in its initial form looked rather like an elongated Mini, management instructed that the basic car needed a restyle – and, as the styling house of choice at BMC at the time was Pininfarina, they were invited to forward their own version of the car.
In the Autumn of that year, two competing XC9001 prototypes were evaluated; the first to appear was a Pininfarina proposal that looked rather like an enlarged ADO16, whilst the second one, produced in-house – a larger car – was more recognisably an 1800, with its characteristic Six-light bodywork and cropped-fins.
Making use of a bigger B-Series engine
The latter of the two was the model that was eventually pursued by BMC, because it was felt that the bigger car would make better use of the upcoming enlarged version of the B-Series engine. The development of the MGB had required the enlargement of the B-Series engine from 1622cc to 1798cc, as the new car was turning out to be heavier than anticipated.
It was this decision to switch to the larger version of the engine that influenced the company’s thinking in going with the larger proposal. In doing so, the project began to move away from its desired market slot – a replacement for the Farina.
Instead of keeping the dimensions of the car to the same level of those of the Farina, and consistent with the rest of the cars in its class, Issigonis grew the car’s wheelbase and (thankfully) its width to take full advantage of the extra grunt that the 1.8-litre engine.
Larger engine means a bigger car…
The wheelbase of the car was now a full 106 inches – some 6 inches longer than the car it was supposed to replace. The trouble was not so much the absolute size of the ADO17 – it was over ten inches shorter than the Farina – but its proportions and its size perception with customers.
Actually, with such a long wheelbase, the interior accommodation was truly impressive, rivalling much larger cars, such as the Austin Westminster. During the development of the ADO17, George Harriman replaced Leonard Lord at the top of BMC, but continued to have complete confidence in the judgement of his design chief at Longbridge (if anything becoming more dependent on the views of this man), believing that the 1.8-litre car would be exactly what the market wanted, trusting that Issigonis had the magic touch when it came to the creation of new cars.
If Issigonis and BMC had fully investigated new car registrations for 1960, they would have noticed that a mere 5% of cars were in the 1700cc-1800cc sector, while 19.6% were between 1400cc-1500cc, a statistic that did not go unnoticed by Ford UK’s Product Planners led by Terry Beckett.
BMC 1800: development of a Landcrab
ADO17: excitement under the skin
Development of the ADO17 continued apace, although its designation changed from the XC9001 to XC9005 in June 1960 (XC9001 signified the 1.5-litre option, XC9005 indicated a changeover to the 1.8-litre version) – and, by this time, it looked almost like the finished article.
Actually, the ADO17 project name was first seen in pictures of the new car, but according to Alex Moulton’s own documentation, the ADO17 codename had been in use since before September 1958. What this all means in all probability is that BMC referred to the project as the ADO17, but Issigonis (who was still based at Cowley in the late-1950s) referred to the car as the XC9001, in order to differentiate it from what was being developed in Longbridge.
By now, Issigonis was using a cell system to develop BMC’s cars. Each cell was a group of engineers with responsibility for a particular model. A-Cell, headed by Jack Daniels was responsible for Mini development, B-Cell, led by Chris Kingham, was tasked with developing the ADO17; while C-Cell, led by Charles Griffin, was responsible for the ADO16, which was under development at Cowley until the team moved to Longbridge in May 1962.
Issigonis sticks close to the ADO17
With the development of the ADO16 centred at Cowley, Issigonis was only able to check up on progress once a week, usually Thursdays. This enabled Charles Griffin to have a relatively free hand, and the ADO16 was probably the better for it. With development of the ADO17 based at Longbridge, Alec Issigonis was able to adopt a more hands-on approach.
The appearance and execution of the ADO17 was already set in the mind of Issigonis as it had been since 1958, but the trouble was that, as development on the car continued, it moved further and further away from being the car that could replace the Farina saloons on the market place. After their successful work on the ADO16, Pininfarina was involved in the latter stages of the car’s styling programme, and would prove to be responsible for some of the last minute revisions to the design of the ADO17.
The car already looked rather similar to the Austin version of the ADO16, so the Italian styling house undertook a final restyle of the front end (which would result in the final solution which was also adopted later and, ironically, for the ADO16) and give it a touch individuality that would associate it with the ADO16, but not too closely.
BMC 1800: giving it a little Italian flavour
One can see the reasoning behind this decision – after all, the ADO16 was a car that had been extremely well received, but it also has to be said Pininfarina did not influence the overall design enough. As can be seen from the accompanying photographs, Pininfarina wanted to take the XC9001 in a different direction.
However, because BMC management preferred the internal proposal, Pininfarina’s role in the creation of the ADO17’s styling would be quite superficial when compared to what he had done with the ADO16. In the end, Pininfarina could only really claim responsibility for the headlights, grille and front wings – the centre section was pretty much untouched from the 1958 proposal – and that, arguably, was the ADO17’s most unhappy aspect.
As mentioned, the four-cylinder engine was basically the 1.8-litre version of the B-Series engine found in the MGB, but in the standard single carburettor incarnation, it was seen as being too unrefined for use in a saloon car. In the pursuit of that extra refinement, it was therefore reworked completely to take a five-bearing crankshaft, despite the fact that the engine had only recently been bored-out to 1.8-litres.
Work done on the B-Series engine
Unusually, the cylinders were Siamesed in two pairs; an expedient adopted with the increase in bore size from 76.2mm of the three bearing crankshaft version of the B-Series engine to 80.3mm of the new variation. With this re-working, the single SU carburettor version of the new engine gave a healthy 85bhp at 5300rpm and was enough to endow the new car with more than acceptable performance.
Technically, the rest of the story with the ADO17 was pretty much as with the ADO16, with one major difference: Issigonis finally had his wish for a subframe-less car realised with the new car. Minor refinements were, of course, implemented, especially in the gearbox: compared with the ADO16, the ADO17 transmission was set further back in relationship with the engine.
In order to aid packaging – by fitting beneath the front suspension cross-tube (the Hydrolastic units sat in this tube, horizontally across the car). Apart from that, refinements were made to the lubrication system within the gearbox – to ensure that there would be no more instances of the weaknesses in the Issigonis transmission-in-sump arrangement.
BMC 1800: Losing the subframes
The ADO17 differed from the Mini and ADO16 by not having subframe assemblies – as mentioned before, this had been a wish of Issigonis. He believed that subframes added weight and cost and, certainly in the case of the Mini, they were only added because of failures in the early prototypes, where the suspension had been mounted directly to the body.
In the ADO17, the front suspension and engine were mounted directly to the body (by thinking laterally in terms of place), which meant that Issigonis designed the ADO17 to have an incredibly stiff structure. In the Mini and ADO16, the subframes added strength to the structure and also served as an effective insulation from road-induced noise. Without these, Issigonis ensured that there would be no criticism against the car in these areas by over-engineering the car’s hull.
Such was the effectiveness of the ADO17 design, its replacement, the actually could not quite match the car’s structural integrity (and certainly not its hewn-from-granite feeling), even with the benefit of the computer aided design that was used during its development.
Launching the Landcrab in style
But when the ADO17 was launched in October 1964, what emerged from Longbridge was, therefore, a car that was faster, heavier, much wider and more expensive than the car it was designed to replace. With that in mind, BMC quite sensibly kept the Farinas in production, although that was not an expedient move as there was little profit in these cars and, being a product of a bygone era, they did not fit-in readily with the rest of the range.
It also meant that, had the Farina not remained in production, there would have been a huge, gaping gap in the range between the small and perfectly formed ADO16 and the oversized ADO17. Of course the ADO17 was actually a quite compact car in terms of its length; its space efficiency remains to this day absolutely astounding in relation to its length.
But the fact remained that the car was larger than the buyer of a mid-sized car was looking for at the time. What particularly set the ADO17 apart from all its rivals was the massive width of the car.
BMC 1800 development story: grandiose sales predictions
Unabashed, George Harriman accepted the view given to him by the dealers that the car could be sold at a rate of 4000 a week and they would be able to sell these cars without difficulty. Initially, the production target was 2500 a week, building up to 4000. Also, a working life of 150,000 miles, low depreciation rates, and a 10-year model run was to be expected from the new model. The truth was somewhat different; the ADO17 was priced at some 14% above the Austin Cambridge and was pitched at a point in the range where it more resembled a gap-filling car in the range between the Farina and Austin Westminster.
This was despite the fact it was just as roomy as the larger and more expensive car. As it was, demand for the car was slow to build and it gave the management time to realise that it was never going to meet the anticipated sales targets – and would never have done so, even if it had been the direct replacement for the Farina that it was envisaged to be.
Like the ADO16 before it, the ADO17 was not offered through the entire dealer network; in a quid pro quo arrangement, the Austin dealers got the first crack of the whip with the ADO17 in September 1964 and it was not until 1966, that the badge-engineered Morris versions made their appearance on the market. Of course, looking at that situation retrospectively, it was a quite ridiculous situation to offer your new and drastically important mid-sized car through half of the company’s available dealers, but that is exactly what BMC did twice during the decade.
Press launch is a mixed result
The press got their hands on the ADO17, now known as the Austin 1800, in July and August 1964 at the Strathgarve Lodge Hotel at Garve in Scotland. Here they drove 16 pre-production cars. The actual launch day was 13 October 1964. It was openly stated in the media at the time that the Austin 1800 was an addition to the BMC range, coming in above the A60 Cambridge, and would not replace any existing models.
Geoffrey Charles, the Motoring Correspondent of The Times wrote, ‘I would sum up the Austin 1800 as a ruggedly built car, adequately powered, comfortable, offering exceptional passenger space, and thoroughly well-designed for modern traffic and touring. It should earn the highest placings in export markets.’
This was typical of many reviews, and it seems that most contemporary pundits thought the ADO17 would be another triumph for Alec Issigonis and BMC. On 27 January 1965, BMC announced some production changes. Some of the Minis being made at Cowley would be produced at Longbridge and, in return, Cowley would build Austin A60s then being built at Longbridge. Some of the A60s built at Longbridge were made on the same production line as the 1800. To enable production of the 1800 to be increased this work was moved on to a line at Cowley already making other models in the 1.5-litre Farina range.
Issigonis on the ADO17 and its rivals
In October 1965 The Times Motoring Correspondent toured the London Motor Show with BMC’s Technical Director and the resulting article offered an insight into the mindset of Alec Issigonis. ‘I am filled with nausea at the dearth of any kind of technical development in the family saloons here, with certain honourable exceptions, of course.
‘They are so dull, uninspired, and unimaginative, It’s all very depressing,’ he said. ‘You can be as critical as you like,’ he said as we passed the Austin 1800, ‘but that car is way out ahead of them all. Styling? I don’t approve of the word. It tends to date a car, and I hate designing cars that date…’
Disappointing sales – and a drawn-out launch
By the time the Morris and Wolseley versions had made their appearances, in March 1966 and March 1967 respectively, it was quite clear that the ADO17 was never even going to get close to its sales targets and in fact it never managed more than the modest total of 40,000 sales per year.
Compare that with the projection of some 200,000 or so sales per year and it demonstrates just how much of a failure on the market the ADO17 really was. The problem of course does not always lie with a car’s styling alone – some ugly cars do sell well, but it is generally because they are regarded to be good cars and see despite their looks. In the case of the ADO17, the car’s odd styling and somewhat inappropriate proportions were not the only problems.
Okay, so it was a fabulously space-efficient car, but the list of ergonomic shortcomings far outweighed its commodiousness. Firstly, in trying to give the car the greatest possible interior space, Issigonis had saddled the ADO17 with the same rather compromised driving position that was found in the Mini and ADO16.
This may be considered an amiable eccentricity in an inexpensive car like the Mini, but it was a major flaw in a car with more upmarket pretensions. Also the steering was unacceptably heavy and low-geared, but as Issigonis was breaking new boundaries in launching such a large front-wheel-drive car, it was accepted that the steering would have to be given a lower ratio rack to keep effort down.
Unfortunately, it was not taken into account during development of the ADO17 that there would be the requirement for power steering because none of its domestic rivals had it – at the time. The only comparable car at the time with front-wheel drive was the Citroën DS and that came with power-assisted steering anyway.
Reliability issues start to become public knowledge
The other problem was that the ADO17 suffered from reliability issues that proved troublesome for the company to fix – most notably, its propensity to burn oil at alarming rate; a problem that took a considerable amount of time to cure, being attributable to the car being over-filled with oil due to its incorrectly calibrated dipstick.
Such stories made great press and were widely circulated, which had the predictable effects on sales. Customer confidence in the ADO17 – and BMC – was dented by such stories and, although these maladies were eventually fixed, it proved too late; the damage had been done. The Times reported in 1969 that the 1800 had a bad launch in 1964, and 70,000 first-batch samples sent BMC dealers frantic with customer complaints.
So low was demand for the 1800, it took until 1966 to build the first 70,000 examples – a crushing disappointment for BMC. The peak production year was 1965/66 when 56,876 left the factories.
Problems designed in, not ironed out
In 1999, journalist Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker wrote about how he stumbled by chance on the awful truth about Alec Issigonis’s attitude to prototype development: ‘Shortly after the 1800’s launch in 1965, Autocar‘s party borrowed one for the annual trek to the Turin Show, and as we arrived outside the Palace Hotel a black Peugeot 404 driven by Sergio Pininfarina drew up behind us. Out stepped Issigonis, his engineering deputy Charles Griffin and BMC styling chief Dick Burzi. Smiling broadly, Issigonis straight over to us.
‘No one told me you were bringing one of these. How did you find it?’ he asked
‘A curate’s egg, good only in parts,’ I replied, then challenged him.
‘Alec, you’ve never actually had one of these in France, have you?’
‘My dear, of course we have – what makes you suggest that?’
‘Because for every 10 miles along the French roads we must have travelled
half a mile up and down! It gets very wearing.’
‘Let’s have a chat over Martinis before dinner’ he suggested.
An hour later he drew me out of earshot of the others.
‘You’re quite right, we haven’t had an 1800 in France. You see, I’ve always thought it a waste of time and effort to build two dozen prototypes and send them all over the world on proving trials,’ he admitted.
‘So we built only three 1800s, thinking we could do everything with them.’
Over breakfast next morning, before flying home to Longbridge, he called me over. ‘I promise ‘Steady’, we’ll have at least two cars in France within a few weeks.’ Perhaps they did, but it was too late.’
BMC 1800 development story: a case of zero development?
Once the Austin and Morris models were launched, the badge-engineered Wolseley 18/85 version followed in March 1967, but unlike the ADO16 and Farina models, that was the extent of the badge engineering for this car. There was some work undertaken on the development of a Riley version, but it did not make production because it was felt that it would clash with the Wolseley version.
Further variations of the ADO17 were felt to be pointless because of its poor sales performance from the day of its launch. So the development of the ADO17 continued in a marketing sense – there was obviously no way that there could be an MG version – the ADO17 was an excellent passenger carrier, but a sporting saloon it was not.
There was also some preliminary development work undertaken on an estate version of the ADO17 (above), but two factors ruled out the production of this variation: the fact that management considered that it would be in direct competition with the Traveller version of the Morris Oxford/Austin Cambridge and when it became clear that the Farina would be replaced by the ADO14 (which was now in the early stages of development), a car that would heavily resemble an ADO17 estate.
Improving the breed: an abandoned concept
The ADO17 that did get away was the Vanden Plas 1800 (above): Initially, Kingsbury worked on a badge-engineered version of the ADO17 similar in spirit to the Vanden Plas Princess, and produced a luxuriously appointed car with a unique front-end style. However, the styling of this car was not an entire success, being too similar to the car it was based on, and its awkward styling resulted in a re-think by the Kingsbury stylists.
Soon after, the reworked Vanden Plas 1800 made an appearance – and it proved dramatically different to its forbear, being based on the body shell of the Australian Austin X6 Tasman/Kimberley. Not only did this incarnation of the Vanden Plas 1800 look sufficiently different to the ADO17 to be adjudged a suitable Vanden Plas, but it also proved to be a styling success – and that was an achievement, given its rather mixed parentage.
However, like the Riley version of the ADO17, the Vanden Plas version did not make it to the market – production volumes would have been small but, more tellingly, after the creation of British Leyland in 1968, it would have competed in the same area of the market as the upmarket stablemates produced by Rover and Triumph.
Abandoned late-model developments
Following the launch of the Wolseley 18/85, the the Mk2 Austin and Morris were launched May 1968; although it was to be another year before the equivalent Wolseley was revealed. The Mk1 had 13in wheels with 4.5in wide rims; the Mk2 moved to 14in rims. This was done to try to lighten the steering. At the rear, the car now had vertical tail lights. In October 1968, the Morris 1800S made its debut.
This twin-carburettor car featured a cylinder head designed by Daniel Richmond of Downton Engineering, a BMC consultant. The engine produced 96bhp at 5700 rpm, which was enough to propel the car to 99mph. It has been speculated that the ADO17 would have been badged as a Cooper, had the BMH/Leyland merger not taken place.
However Cooper, Downton and other consultants were now out of favour at BLMC – this was the era of the long-distance rally and the 1800S would be pressed into service as a reliable and rugged, if slow competitor.
Market failure revealed
By 1969, the extent of the ADO17’s failure in the market place was exposed for all to see. Below are the BMC/Austin Morris UK sales figures for 1968.
- 1100/1300: 150,000
- Mini: 90,000
- A60/Oxford: 30,000
- Minor: 22,500
- 1800: 20,000
- A40: 2750
- Total: 315,250
At the time of the production of the two millionth Mini in June 1969, The Times recorded the fortunes of the Issigonis front-wheel-drive cars: ‘The Mini, which was designed by Alec Issigonis, pioneered the concept of front-wheel-drive, transverse engine design in Britain, a formula followed by several Continental car makers. After the Mini, the 1100/1300 and 1800, BMC models embodied the same layout, and in less than 10-years more than 3.7 million of these cars and their derivatives have been built.
‘As well as two million Minis, the total includes 1.5 million 1100/1300s and 200,000 1800s. Between them, these models now account for 25.7% of the British new car market. The 1100/1300 is the best-selling car in Britain, with 14.6 per cent of the market, and the Mini the fifth best seller, with 8.1%. The 1800 holds 3%.’ The ADO17 had managed to sell around 200,000 examples in roughly the same time as the Mini and ADO16 had each managed to sell nearly a million.
In May 1969, the Wolseley 18/85 Mk2 was announced; and in July 1969 the Austin 1800S appeared, followed by the Wolseley 18/85S in September. The S models embarrassed BMC’s own luxury barge, the in performance terms and the Wolseley offered the upmarket trimmings. The 3-Litre cost £1507, while the 18/85S retailed at £1273.
Six-cylinder Landcrabs unveiled
It was not until 21 March 1972 that the first major mechanical addition to the ADO17 range was made, with the launch of the 2.2-litre E-Series versions. This engine had already seen service in the Australian Austin X6, launched in 1970, but the UK and Europe had to wait – another example of the intelligent policy of bedding in a new engine by releasing it in a limited production form, even if the dealers may have disagreed.
The straight-six was actually conceived in the BMC years and was basically a six-cylinder version of the E-Series engine that was being used at the time in the Maxi. For anyone who saw the compromises in original four-cylinder version of the E-Series engine with its siamesed bores with no water jacketing between the cylinders, it became obvious that it was designed that way to be as compact as possible.
The reason for its compactness was that, when stretched to six cylinders, it needed to fit across the engine bay of the ADO17. A product planner for the company related an interesting tale regarding the E6 engine and its installation in the ADO17: ‘I was told that originally, the 2200 was going to have the radiator on the side. When it moved to the front, it freed up more width, so they needn’t have made the E-Series quite so short.’
The Wolseley Six was the best of the new cars, an armchair on wheels with the contents of a timber yard for furnishings mated with a smooth six-cylinder engine. It was the best-selling of the 2200s as well. At the same time the 2200/Six models appeared, the ADO17 went into MK 3 guise. Like the Mk3 Minis and ADO16s, these were blander versions with cost taken out. These Mk3 versions would see out ADO17 production. Production of the ADO17 1800/2200 ended in early 1975 to make way for its more stylish ADO71 replacement. 387,283 were produced in a decade.
In conclusion: was the BMC 1800 a big, fat failure?
So, why was the ADO17 such a poor seller? Well, looking at the situation logically, the car failed on a number of counts: it was not the car that the mid-sized market needed – its engine was too big, it cost significantly more than the Ford Cortina and it was also too commodious. The mid-sized buyer (the company car man) liked a car that they could understand.
It also failed because it was too obviously mid-sized to be considered an alternative to the large 3-litre saloons that were on offer at the time. Certainly when the Austin 3-Litre was launched in 1969, the 1800 in twin-carburettor form could outperform it and offered more interior space. The ADO17 was as much a miracle of packaging efficiency as the Mini was and it offered something to the motoring world that should not be underestimated.
However, buyers simply did not understand the car and, on that basis perhaps, BMC should have not rested on its laurels when designing it. It should have accepted that larger cars would encourage more demanding motorists and so should have given it a more effectively styled bodyshell. BMC and Pininfarina had worked closely in the past and it is a shame that the company did not employ the Italian master to style the complete car, instead of simply altering an Issigonis-penned design.
Could Pininfarina have saved it?
Perhaps, when BMC saw just how badly the car was faring on the marketplace, it should have committed to a re-body along the lines of the BMC-Pininfarina prototype that was shown to the world in 1967 (above). The company knew it was heading for a takeover by Leyland Motors and so should have thrown caution to the wind, accepted that the BMC 1800 was a moderate seller and given it the beautiful body it so richly deserved.
This would perhaps have given the company a significant presence in the junior executive market that was emerging from the shadows with the success of the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000. The styling of the car does not address the issue of the unsuitability of the basic model in the marketplace. It was designed to replace the Farina and yet the company thought it was a good idea to make it bigger and considerably more expensive – BMC should have stuck with the 1622cc version of the B-Series engine and sat it on a 100-inch wheelbase.
Again, being an expert after the event is an easy game to play, but it does clearly illustrate in this case that the ADO17 marked the time when the fortunes of BMC took a sharp and sudden downturn. The immediate failure of the car on the market rang alarm bells at Longbridge and, immediately, steps in the Marketing Department were taken to avoid repeating the faux pas of developing a car that the market patently did not want.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.